By Dan Harrison
---- — HAMILTON — Every young hockey player wonders how it feels to play like the pros.
After last night, players on the Beverly High hockey team don’t have to wonder any longer.
The Panthers were in some grizzly company last night as Boston Bruins assistant head coach Doug Houda made the trek down to the Johnson Rink on the Pingree School campus to show the Beverly boys a few drills.
After practice Houda and Eric Tosi — a Beverly High graduate and current manager of media relations for the Boston Bruins — presented Beverly High head coach Bob Gilligan with his own No. 66 Bruins sweater with his last name stitched onto the back.
For Gilligan, a lifelong Bruins fan who has battled non-Hodgkins lymphoma the past two years, the experience was one for the ages. Asked where this ranks among his fondest memories behind the bench, Gilligan couldn’t think of much that topped this.
“This is right at the top. No. 1 is that I’ve been able to coach the kids (and No. 2), it’s been huge to get into (state) tournament games. But to have (the Bruins) come in as an organization and do this on their own time it means a lot to me, growing up (a Bruins fan) as a young kid and going through what I’ve been through.
“It’s huge they’re doing things for the community,” Gilligan added moments after receiving his jersey. “It gives me a lift and it certainly gives the kids a lift. We are very fortunate.”
National Hockey League fans around the country are waiting to see if the 2012-13 season will be played at all, with the owners and players embroiled in a lockout. But with no NHL games currently being played, it gave Tosi the opportunity to give back to his former high school — and Houda was more than willing to help out.
“We got involved knowing the situation with coach (Gilligan) going through some battles,” said Houda. “It’s something where the Boston Bruins like to get out and support the community. That’s why we’re here.”
Houda began by calling the Beverly boys over to the bench, where they huddled around the B’s assistant. He wielded a dry erase board that he used to school the Panthers on the finer points of hockey.
More importantly, he told the kids the real life value in watching their head coach confront his illness head-on and the importance of living each life to its fullest.
Then, it was on to the hockey.
The first drill worked on angles and had the players doing 1-on-1’s starting in the neutral zone, where the defensive player wasn’t allowed
to skate backwards. The idea was for the defender to use good angles to shield the forward toward the boards while the defender makes sure to keep his stick on the ice.
“Stick on the ice is the biggest thing we try to teach young players, even at the pro level. Stick on the ice all the time,” said Houda. “Everyone has a tendency to keep their stick in the air, but you don’t get to play with the puck very much if the stick’s in the air. It’s the little things we’re trying to get them in habit of.”
Houda, who has a son on the Lynnfield High team, has seen his fair share of North Shore high school hockey. “That’s why I say they have to keep their stick on the ice,” he joked.
Next, Houda moved the boys into the offensive zone for some 3-on-3 work in the corners. Here, offensive players were tasked with keeping the puck in the lower half of the zone, maintain possession and look for a chance to go to the net. When Beverly forwards failed to keep possession, Houda forced the trio into sprints.
“It was fun. It’s nice to have someone who has been in the NHL come and talk to us and let us know the stuff they do in the NHL,” said
Beverly senior winger and team captain Andrew Irving. “It’s nice to tell people we got someone to teach us how to play like a pro and work hard.”
The third and final drill focused on forwards and defensemen clearing the puck out of the defensive zone when it gets wrapped around the net. Houda instructed the players to play the puck with their backs to the blue line, keep it in tight to their skates and to chip the puck up and over the defenseman pinching in.
“I told the kids (Boston’s) defensive game is how they won the (Stanley) Cup (in 2011): starting from their own end and working it out,” said Gilligan. “Coverage in your own end is so important, and (Houda) is instrumental for (the Bruins).”
Houda made sure to emphasize the importance of this aspect of the game, citing Bruins players like Danny Paille and Chris Kelly as guys who’ve helped increase their value in the NHL by thriving in the half-wall situations.
Houda was certainly impressed with the Panthers, who have raced out to a 2-0 record this season while outscoring their opponents, 13-1. “They’re a great bunch of kids,” he said. “I wish them luck on the year. They’re pretty good.”
After the final drill, the kids gathered around the bench area as Tosi and Houda gave Gilligan the jersey.
“I’m as fortunate as can be,” said the unshakeable Gilligan. “I’m going to go home and the wife and kids are going to say, ‘What the heck happened?’”
Gilligan wasn’t the only one whose spirits were lifted. For a group who has watched Gilligan the past two years and witnessed his struggles, the opportunity to see their head coach in a moment of true bliss was uplifting for all of the Panther players and assistant coaches.
“It was great seeing the big smile on his face,” said Andrew Irving. “He loved it. He always loves finding someone new to talk with about the NHL and all the hockey stuff that he loves.”